"A Vogue for Small Books": The Tale of Peter Rabbit and its Contemporary Competitors

Laura C. Stevenson



To discuss Peter Rabbit's future is to discuss the fate of a picture book in a world full of television, movies, and video games that compete with children's reading time. It's fashionable to lament these tempting activities and the commercialism that profits from them. But without approving for an instant of the greed with which adults adulterate the innocence of the innocent, I think that it is important to view Peter's future in historical perspective.

From the moment it was first printed, The Tale of Peter Rabbit had to compete for children's attention, not only with bicycles, penny dreadfuls, golliwog dolls, and pantomimes, but with an impressive body of children's literature. Peter's tale shares this centennial with some 450 other children's books, among them Kipling's Just so Stories, Nesbit's Five Children and It, and the dramatic version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess. Once a book becomes a classic, its success seems inevitable, so we tend to forget the competitive nature of the late Victorian publishing world. But we should not. Nor should we forget that to Beatrix Potter whose nature was a kind of three color process in which great practical intelligence, sensitive artistic observation, and deep social shyness combined to create a wide spectrum of personal characteristics -- competition was not just an abstract entity. By her own admission, she decided to publish Peter Rabbit because it was as good as other books coming out.

The admission has received little attention because of the context in which it appeared: "'Roots' of Peter Rabbit," published in The Horn Book of 1929. It was Beatrix Potter's only formal autobiographical statement, for she saw no reason to amplify it: "It is frank and downright," she wrote in 1942, "but accurate."[1] The essay is frank, and it is accurate, but it is also a post-romantic portrait of an artist as carefully crafted as any of the backgrounds in the little books. [2] At Peter's roots, Beatrix says, lies her own descent from "generations of Lancashire yeomen and weavers" non-industrialized country people. More directly, his roots lie in her own pastoral childhood, "a good deal" of which was spent in the Highlands of Scotland, nurtured by the folktales of a highland nurse who believed "in witches, fairies and the creed of the terrible John Calvin (the creed rubbed off, but the fairies remained)."

Peter's literary roots lie in Beatrix's childhood reading: the novels of Scott and Edgeworth not, she emphasizes, a "stodgy fat book I think it was called "A history of the Robin Family," by Mrs. Trimmer," which she hated. The target here is not the book, but the infamous Mrs. Trimmer, who as editor of The Guardian of Education in 1802-6, had successfully eradicated fairy tales from children's reading for fifty years. Finally, Peter's roots were free of the conformity of schooling: "Thank goodness my education was neglected; I was never sent to school . . . it would have rubbed off some of the originality." Original insight, free from industrial and intellectual pollution, nurtured by a countryside and its people: at Peter's roots lie the artistic ideals of Wordsworth and Ruskin.

As for The Tale of Peter Rabbit itself, she continues, it was written for a real child whose illness prompted a letter "with pen and ink scribbles." But when she tried to publish the story, it met with bourgeois indifference:

After a time there began to be a vogue for small books, and I thought "Peter" might do as well as some that were being published. But I could not find any publisher who agreed with me. The manuscript nearly word for word the same, but with only outline illustrations was returned with or without thanks by at least six firms. Then I drew my savings out of the post office savings bank and got an edition of 450 copies printed.


After selling the private edition to obliging aunts, she adds, she showed it to Warne, and the rest, of course, is history original, non-commercial, genuine art triumphed.

It is easy to read over the sentence about "the vogue for small books," because in its post-romantic context, it compares original art to a commercial fad. But this sentence -- and indeed, the whole brief story of Peter's publication -- had appeared previously in a letter Beatrix had written to Anne Carroll Moore in 1925, when the Hornbook first asked her for autobiography. In both versions, Beatrix says quite candidly that what prompted her to attempt publication was "a fashion for little picture books" or "a vogue for small books" that made her think in the significantly more competitive phrase of the later statement "'Peter' might do as well as some that were being published." It appears that some little books she saw in shops or when she visited Noel Moore and his siblings made her think of publishing a letter she had written seven years earlier. So the question naturally arises, was there indeed a vogue for little books -- and if so, which of those books became a catalyst for Peter's publication?

Little books were certainly not unusual in Victorian England. Miniature books had appeared as early as the 15th century, and after the Reformation, miniature Bibles were very popular, beginning a long history of small religious works. Most familiar in the mid-nineteenth century were the tracts with which evangelical presses deluged the market , but sermons and devotional literature were usually small, too: to reach a wide audience, books had to be cheap, and paper was expensive. The dictates of economy often ensured that children's literature beginning with John Newbery's books was printed in small format. And of course, there were size fads. In 1807, William Roscoe's charming picture book The Butterfly's Ball was followed by dozens of little imitators.

Victorian novels, however, were printed in a large, expensive format: the three-decker, which cost 31s. The assumption in 1888 as in 1828 was that nobody bought a novel entire: middle class readers either read them in periodicals or borrowed them from Mudie's Circulating Library. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, rising literacy in the lower classes increased demand for inexpensive reading material, and cheaper paper and high-speed presses made it technologically possible to meet that demand; thus presses began to bring out series like Routledge's Pocket Library, which reprinted popular novels in a small format and very small print. The format was successful, but it had an accidental social connotation: to most Victorians between 1845 and 1890, possession of a small volume suggested either an evangelical bent or an implied admission that one was not respectably middle class. There were exceptions, of course: the small almanacs Kate Greenaway put out yearly enjoyed a vogue in the '80s and '90s. But they were "Aesthetic" ephemera, not "real" reading.

As with adult works, so with children's. After the 1850's, the competition of penny dreadfuls forced the religious presses, which by then did most children's publishing, to change both what and how they published. Child deaths and the imports and exports of Peru gave way to the wholesome adventure stories and domestic fiction of Ballantyne, Henty, Mrs. Ewing and Mrs. Molesworth published first in folio magazines, then in 6s quartos. The sizes and prices were unaffected by the religious presses' loss of their monopoly the year before Beatrix Potter was born, when Macmillan published Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Charles Kingsley's Water Babies. Though this event and the passage of the Education Act five years later made it clear to commercial presses that children's publishing was becoming too lucrative to leave to the religious, all presses packaged their children's literature in the same brightly colored quartos. And so it was that the children's books Beatrix Potter remembered with affection Mrs. Molesworth's Carrots and Dinah Mulock's Little Sunshine were both of standard size, and that her beloved Caldecott picture books were large and oblong.

The status of little books changed during the 1890s, during most of which the Peter Rabbit letter sat quietly in Noel Moore's drawer. The change was part of a new attention to book format that burst upon the publishing world in 1891, when William Morris founded the Kelmscott Press. Morris had, of course, long advocated the beautiful and well constructed, rather than the cheap and ugly, but his press forced other publishers to face the tacit accusation that mass produced books fell into the latter category. It was not just a matter of ornamentation. Looking back on his beginnings as an 1890's publisher, Grant Richards asserted that Kelmscott's primary contribution to the trade was the revival of attractive layout. Morris, he said, insisted

that when one opened a book one should see the two printed pages as one whole and not as two, that the inner margins should hardly be greater than was rendered necessary by the requirements of the binder, and that the outer and bottom margins should much exceed those at the top. The thing was overdone, but the principle was right, and the Kelmscott convention profoundly influenced the printers who were not too hide-bound to cast off a bad habit. . . .[They] went back to the balance and proportion of the old manuscript books and to the books of the artist-craftsmen who had followed the birth of printing.[3]

The difficulty for publishers who wished to associate themselves with "the artist-craftsmen" of earlier eras was, of course, producing beautiful books cheaply; but here they were assisted by a variety of trends. One of them was the late Victorian vogue for fairy tales. In 1888, Oscar Wilde's A Happy Prince and Other Tales, illustrated in part by Walter Crane, had established the beautifully produced literary fairy tale as a popular aesthetic mode. Andrew Lang, who had little use for aestheticism, had retaliated the next year with The Blue Fairy Book, traditional tales collected by his wife and daughter but published under his name. Its popularity established not only a series of "color fairy books" but also a series of imitators. And the imitators were not limited to fairy tales; Frazer's The Golden Bough, which appeared in 1890, triggered a demand for folklore and mythology. Thus, at the time the Kelmscott Press was founded, fairy tales and myths had become "crossover" in every sense of the term: they could be marketed to children, with the knowledge that they would also be bought by aesthetes, Tennyson lovers, scholars, romantically-inclined women, repentant agnostics -- the list was endless. This was a publisher's dream, for neither fairy tales nor myths were copyrighted.

Fairy tales and legends lent themselves to the black and white decoration Kelmscott made fashionable; and here again, the publishers were lucky. The use of photography in the engraving process in the 1860s and 1870s had led in the 1880s to faster, less expensive means of reproducing illustrators' drawings: line block, halftone block, and etching. Accommodating the resulting explosion in demand for black-and-white illustration, a new generation of illustrators was pouring out of art schools, talented, eager, and cheap.

Given these coinciding trends, it is not surprising that one of the first series of books influenced by Kelmscott was George Unwin's 12-volume Children's Library, which appeared in 1891-94. This was a series of handsomely-bound little books including, among other things, Basile's Pentamerone, the first English translation of Collodi's Pinocchio, and Ernst Beckman's Max and Carlino, the last illustrated by Florence Upton. No doubt thoughts of copyright influenced the international selection, but that selection was enterprising and more important, the Kelmscott beauty of the set's small format made it clear to other publishers that little books, in addition to being cheap to produce, could be fashionable.

There were publishers more than ready to learn this lesson. The 1890s saw the advent of a publishing generation that had grown up as autodidacts during the aesthetic era, and had firsthand knowledge of the audience that sought both beauty and education in books. Chief among these was John Lane, who joined with Charles Elkin Mathews in 1889 to found The Bodley Head. Lane quickly became a self-appointed literary arbiter who "defined for book buyers of the period what constituted 'elegant' appearance and sophisticated content."[4] He defined "elegant appearance" in his series The Flowers of Parnassus, collections of famous poems beautifully illustrated by the new generation of black and white artists. As for "sophisticated content," Lane began the Keynote Series, which offered prose works in progressive, anti-Victorian voices. The volumes in both these series were sold for a shilling, and Lane reduced production costs in the time-honored way: printing uncopyrighted poetry and grossly underpaying his authors and illustrators. But he also chose a format half the size of a standard octavo. As a result of his success, exciting new ideas (or great poetry with exciting new illustrations) quickly became associated with nicely crafted little books.

In the year Lane began The Keynote Series which was, incidentally, also the year in which Beatrix Potter wrote the Peter Rabbit letter -- another fledgling publisher, J. M. Dent, took up the Kelmscott challenge by bringing out a beautiful edition of Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, illustrated by a 19-year-old insurance clerk named Aubrey Beardsley. And if it was Lane who realized what could be done with Aubrey Beardsley, it was Dent who realized what could be done with little books in a mass market. Eventually, this realization led to the Everyman Library. But in 1894, it led to the Temple Shakespeare, a series that soon ran to 40 volumes. Because of Lane's competition, each attractively-designed volume cost a shilling, and each was small. The Temple Shakespeare, which in the next 40 years sold 5 million copies, was almost exactly the size of the later published The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

In 1894, then, the vogue for small books was well begun. Dent, encouraged by Beardsley's success, found other aspiring young artists to launch (or exploit, depending on one's point of view) and extended the new fashion to the crossover market Unwin had appealed to. The result was the Banbury Cross Series: twelve tiny volumes of fairy tales and nursery rhymes at 1s a volume, 13s.6d a boxed set. It was a stunning series. The young artists Dent had chosen later became well-known illustrators: among them were R. Anning Bell, H.Granville Fell, and Charles Robinson. Nor did he limit his opportunities to men: The House that Jack Built was illustrated by Violet Holden, and Banbury Cross and other Nursery Rhymes was illustrated by Alice Woodward, whose sister helped Beatrix Potter print The Tale of Peter Rabbit privately.

At the time these books came out, Beatrix was also becoming a professional illustrator, but she was working in entirely different publishing circles. Her editors -- Hildesheimer and Faulkner and Ernest Nister -- produced ingenious toy books with moving parts, cards, and sentimental books with chromolithographed color pictures, cheaply printed in Germany. Working for them was nothing to be ashamed of; Beatrix's description of her first meeting with Mr. Faulkner may show that she knew Grub Street when she saw it, but it also admits that one of the press's artists drew animals better than she did and notes her uncle's comment that he'd seen nothing vulgar.[5] That's a fair comment on both presses. The illustrations in Nister's books were well done, particularly in those edited by Robert Ellice Mack, the man with whom Beatrix Potter haggled about the price for her series "A Frog That Would A-Fishing Go."

But working for Grub Street was a matter of money, not of art. Nister produced what the public wanted, and his public (unlike Beardsley's) wanted predictable novelty -- happy endings, sorrowful partings, tongue-in-cheek humor, cute puppies and kittens, adorable children in an attractive format. Sometimes this format included size: in 1890, for example, Nister produced a boxed set of miniature books called The Little Folks' Favourite Library. On the surface, it is pretty; closer inspection reveals that the print is minuscule and that in any given story, the pictures have nothing in common except their subjects: the kittens on page one, for example, may be replaced by entirely different kittens on page two. This oddity is easily explainable, for Nister's illustrators did not illustrate: they submitted pictures which Mack sorted by theme (kittens, puppies, farms, and so on) and sent to trusted writers to make into stories. In this case, the writer was E. Nesbit, who currently was working for Mack. Nesbit's friend Alice Hoatson often helped her, and she remembered their Grub Street days as follows:

Sheaves of illustrations used to be sent down to us and we wrote stories and verses to these pictures. . . .[We began at] about 10.30 p.m. and . . . wrote till far into the night. Our inspiration was weak gin and water -- very shocking! One tablespoon each, in water, was our allowance, but sometimes E. would say 'Oh, Mouse, just one more and we can get this batch done. Mack wants it done at once.'[6]

The text accompanying Beatrix Potter's "A Frog He Would A-Fishing Go," which appeared in Nister's Holiday Annual the year Dent's Banbury Cross series was published, was most likely produced under analogous circumstances.

The lovely illustrations of Cinderella or Br'er Rabbit Beatrix Potter drew at this time suggest that she had aspirations beyond Grub Street, but it was difficult to move from Nister to other presses. E. Nesbit, who counted among her friends Richard Le Gallienne, Laurence Housman and George Bernard Shaw, and whose progressive ideas (and extraordinary beauty) led John Lane to print some of her work, had a way out. But Beatrix Potter did not move in such circles and importantly, she was illustrating in color and thinking in terms of Caldecott at a time when Beardsley was all the rage. So it is not surprising that while her desire for independence kept her sending work to Nister in 1894 and 1895, the artist in her increasingly turned to "drawing funguses very hard." Natural history looked like a real hope, and may have continued to do so even after the non-reception of her paper at the Linnaean Society in 1897; Roy Watling has reminded us that she produced sixty-seven fungus paintings after the meeting.[7] But by late 1899, it was becoming clear that her beautiful mycological works were not going "to be put in a book someday."[8] And that is when, by her own authority, a vogue for little picture books turned her thoughts to publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit..

The publishing world to which she returned was crucially different from the one she had left. During her four-year absence, William Morris and Sir Edmund Burne Jones had died, and the Kelmscott press shortly thereafter. Aubrey Beardsley had also died, still in his 20s; Oscar Wilde, now a ruined man, was dying in Paris. It was a time for new voices, and some of the best-known of those voices were speaking to children. Kipling's The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book had become classics; The Golden Age and Dream Days had made Kenneth Grahame a famous name; E. Nesbit's The Treasure Seekers was making her fortune. But the great children's publishing phenomena were the golliwog books, which began with The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg in 1895, and continued in 12 sequels until 1909. These books, in which doggerel verses by Ruth Upton faced color illustrations by her daughter Florence, used the familiar large oblong format of Caldecott's toybooks. But the bright, poster-style illustrations and perhaps more important, the unstructured white areas that surrounded them greatly influenced the picture book as we know it today.

The other publishing phenomenon that had appeared during Beatrix's absence was Grant Richards, a well-connected young man who set up his press in 1897 and became, in the next four years, the publisher of George Bernard Shaw, A. E. Housman, G. K. Chesterton, and Saki. Grudgingly respectful of Morris's influence and determined that his books "were to look at least as well as those of [his] competitors,"[9] he looked at those competitors' works carefully. He noticed that the success of The Children's Library and the Banbury Cross Series had prompted other presses to issue small editions of their most popular children's authors. But he also saw that nobody had brought out a prestigious series of little children's books. So he started one: the Dumpy Books For Children.

The series was well reviewed, and critics especially appreciated the small size of the volumes, but Richards lost money on it. Then, in 1899, he was shown a small picture book manuscript called The Story of Little Black Sambo, which a Scottish woman named Helen Bannerman, living in India with her surgeon husband, had written for her two- and five-year old daughters. Alas, she had sent the manuscript to England in the care of a friend who knew nothing about the publishing industry. To coerce the friend into selling the copyright for five pounds was child's play for Richards; and The Story of Little Black Sambo came out in October 1899 as Dumpy Book Number 4. [14] The return was probably the largest of Richards' publishing career. Reviewers raved. The first edition sold out in a month, necessitating a second; a third sold out for the Christmas market of 1900; the fourth claimed there were 21,000 copies in print.[10]

Without a doubt, it was Little Black Sambo that provoked Beatrix Potter to think "Peter might do as well as some [little books] that were being published." It was the only little picture book coming out "around 1900" and it was revolutionary. Between its fashionably small covers, it offered a story to very young children, with a few words of simple, non-moralistic text facing brightly-colored pictures. Even more than the golliwog books, it defined what the picture book would become. But it is not hard to see why Sambo's popularity would arouse a competitive spirit in a woman who valued artistic originality; the book was entirely derivative. Sambo himself was the Bannerman girls' golliwog doll[11] The tigers Sambo encountered evoked Kipling's Jungle Books. As for the illustrations, they were an amateurish cross of Florence Upton's and those of the mid-century best-seller Shock Headed Peter.To be fair, the story's inherent charm transcends its derivative roots. But that charm was doubtless lost on an unpublished author who had written an original, beautifully illustrated story for the same age group.

By mid March 1900 -- five months after Sambo's appearance Beatrix had made the Peter Rabbit letter into a dummy book, and she was negotiating with a publisher. Her letter to Noel Moore's sister Margery makes it clear she had a little-book format and price in mind:

The publisher is a gentleman who prints books, and he wants a bigger book than he has got enough money to pay for! And Miss Potter has arguments with him. He was taken ill on Sunday and his sisters and his cousins and his aunts had arguments, I wonder if that book will ever be printed! I think Miss Potter will go off to another publisher soon! She would rather make 2 or 3 little books costing 1/- each than one big book costing 6/- because she thinks little rabbits cannot afford to spend 6 shillings on one book, and would never buy it.[12]

Nor was she thinking of just any little book. For the dummy book of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, she chose not the 1890's format of the Banbury Cross books, in which the illustrations encircled the text, or of a Little Folk's Favourite, in which the text wove between pictures -- but of the little picture-book style that Bannerman had used in The Story of Little Black Sambo.

We come now to her difficulties, which I think can be attributed at least in part to factors other than true art rejected. One of these factors appears in "The Roots of Peter Rabbit," where Beatrix says she wanted to publish Peter but was "unable to find a publisher that agreed with [her]." We should take that statement literally: the letter to Margery chronicles argument, but not a "return with or without thanks." The editor's insistence on a bigger book, the request for poetry, the female staff, and the tolerance of argument all suggest to me that she took the book to Nister and was offered an appearance in a holiday annual but that's just a hunch. What is important is that Beatrix's dealings with editors had been conditioned by Grub Street; and, as the text and picture in Margery's letter show, she was considering the tactic that had compelled Nister to give her her price on "A Frog He Would A-Fishing Go" withdrawal. And she did withdraw it. On April 24, she wrote to Margery's sister Freda: "Miss Potter is sitting upon her book at present and considering! The publisher cannot tell what has become of it." The accompanying picture portrays Beatrix sitting on a book while a publisher waves his hands in frustration.[13] But this time, the publisher did not give in and all the publishers to whom she sent the manuscript over the next year declined it.

Considering this situation, it is important to remember that there is a very fine distinction between a work that is original and work that is unmarketable; The Tale of Peter Rabbit, as it began its travels, straddled that line. Beatrix was consciously offering a little picture book of a new school. But Peter's story was generically unfamiliar not poetry, not a sentimental animal tale, not a cartoon-like fantasy, not an awful warning and its forward-looking nature was obscured by the pacing problems at the end. More crucially, Beatrix's pictures were "outline illustrations"; and in 1901, black-and-white illustration was still heavily influenced by Morris and Beardsley. She was presenting an altogether different style, but Bannerman and Upton's successes ensured that the future of stylistically innovative picture books lay with color illustration; and a three color half-tone process was just becoming available. A busy editor besieged by manuscripts and conditioned to read for weaknesses could find many reasons for laying The Tale of Peter Rabbit aside.

Rightly believing in Peter's originality, but not aware of the reasons for its difficulties, Beatrix decided to print the book herself. I suspect that it was not until September 1901, upon hearing that she was doing so, that her friend Canon Rawnsley helped her, perhaps tempted by hearing that the only editor who had seriously considered it had "wanted poetry." Fortunately, when he sent his dreadful rhyming version to Frederick Warne and Co., he included Beatrix's drawings, half her original manuscript, and the news that blocks existed from a forthcoming private printing.

The ensuing exchange is illuminating. Warne wrote to Rawnsley, asking for the rest of Beatrix's manuscript and inquiring, among other things, why all the pictures were not colored. Rawnsley unwisely allowed Beatrix to answer the letter herself, and her tone was one schooled by Grub Street. Instead of offering to color the pictures, or something of that sort, she closed her letter with an abrupt explanation:

I did not colour the whole book for two reasons the great expense of good colour printing and also the rather uninteresting colour of a good many of the subjects which are most of them rabbit-brown and green.

This abruptness almost ended The Tale of Peter Rabbit's chances of publication for the second time. Writing back to Rawnsley, Warne expressed disappointment with the end of the story and added,

we are persuaded that to make the book a success, it is absolutely necessary that the pictures should be colored throughout. Miss Potter seems to think the color would be uninteresting, so that as we differ so materially on this point... we think it best to decline your kind offer, at any rate this year.

But they left the door open; the manuscript had been carefully edited to produce a book with 32 pictures, and the letter suggested that "each of these should be produced in colour." This was not a Grub Street ultimatum: it was a negotiation which, while based on a knowledge of the market, treated the author's ideas with respect, considered the book itself in artistic terms, and expressed both genuine hesitation and genuine interest. One reason for that interest is embedded in the polite rejection of Rawnsley's poetic version: "we think there is a great deal to be said for the simple narration, which has been used to good effect in a little book produced last year entitled "Little Black Sambo", though there are many good ideas in your verses which might be introduced with advantage." The Warnes wanted a little book to compete with The Story of Little Black Sambo. But that could materialize only if Miss Potter could be brought to revise.

The Warne's tactful letter brought out the side of Beatrix Potter that respected professional dealing, truthful speaking, and genuine knowledge; the clear hesitation broke down her tendency to resist suggestion and made her rethink her work. In a letter unfortunately lost, she expressed her willingness to revise and sent a few colored pictures for the Warnes' approval. Having studied them, one of the press's newly successful illustrators, L. Leslie Brooke, told the Warnes to publish the book, for it would be a success.[14] The assurance coincided with the appearance in October 1901 of Bannerman's second little book, Little Black Mingo, to warm reviews; and the Warnes, now facing the possibility of competing with a series of miniature golliwog books, accepted The Tale of Peter Rabbit.[15]

They acted not a moment too soon, for Little Black Mingo and the Bannerman books that followed it yearly were only a few of the "little picture books" that appeared in Sambo's wake. Among these, of course, were the Dumpy Books, which Richards published in increasing numbers each year, but other series quickly followed. In 1901, J.M. Dent led the way with The Bairn Books. In 1902, the year Peter was published, Swann Sonnenschein began the Oogley OO Books, imitating both the format and "crossover" tone of the early Dumpy Books; and Hodder and Stoughton brought out The Little One's Library, among them The Story of a Little Coloured Coon, obviously inspired by Sambo. Grub Street joined them: Nister brought out The Rosebud Series and Raphael Tuck started The Children's Gem Library, each with a Nesbit story to give it respectability. Thus, in the first year of its publication, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was competing with six series of little books. Its performance was all a press (and an author) could wish: 28,000 copies were printed in the last three months of 1902, 7,000 more than Sambo had sold in a year; 16,500 more copies were printed in 1903.[16]

And that, as Beatrix Potter would say, is the story of Peter Rabbit. But there is an epilogue. Forty-one years after the publication of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Janet Adam Smith published what can only be called an encomium on the little books in The Listener, remarking that Beatrix's illustrations had behind them the same sense of place as those of Palmer, Calvert, and other English pastoral artists. She sent a copy to Beatrix Potter and received a gruff answer that, while thanking her, wondered at her "knowing more about the inception of the Peter Rabbit books than I do." The unkind remark was completely unwarranted by the article; so was the obvious assumption that Smith had accused Beatrix of deriving her style from other painters. Clearly, Smith had conjured up a demon and the demon appears in Beatrix's letter: "When first published another outraged authoress (and her publisher) said they were a crib of a horrid little book called 'Little Black Sambo.' Now you say they are founded on the work of the Immortals." Five days later in a letter to Arthur Stephens of Warne and Company, Beatrix mentioned the demon again: "You may not remember," she wrote,

as regards 'Peter Rabbit' a Mrs [Helen] Bannerman & her publishers Grant Richards said Peter was imitated from their Dumpy book series and they were rather nasty about it. As a matter of fact, Peter was spontaneously written before "Little Black Sambo" was published.[17]

One would like to know, of course, what happened particularly because the story is so perplexing. Far from being united co-producers of "their Dumpy book series" at the time The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published, Bannerman and Richards were barely on speaking terms. Despite Bannerman's repeated pleas, Richards had refused to restore the copyright of The Story of Little Black Sambo to her, even without remuneration. She thus published The Story of Little Black Mingo and all her subsequent books with James Nisbet & Company, who printed them in a format which, excepting the addition of a picture on the front cover, was identical to that of The Dumpy Books..

Apparently, Richards and Bannerman overcame their mutual ill-will, but their "nastiness" to Beatrix Potter almost certainly did not involve legal action. Neither the Bannerman nor the Potter biographers have found a trace of such action in the archives, and Beatrix's phrase to Stephens "you may not remember" suggests there was nothing to look for. And there was no case: The Tale of Peter Rabbit was indeed written before The Story of Little Black Sambo, and if Sambo was derivative, The Story of Little Black Mingo, which featured a mugger and an egg-eating mongoose right out of Kipling, was worse. Nor could Richards, who published The Story of Little YellowYang-Lo in 1903, take a moral high ground.

What seems possible, given the size of the vogue for small books, is that Richards (perhaps with Bannerman's permission) wrote a piece in the Publisher's Circular or one of the reviews, decrying the number of books on the 1902 Christmas market that were, in Beatrix's elegant phrase, "a crib" from The Story of Little Black Sambo. For this, there was ample justification: The Oogley Oo books were clearly Dumpy clones, and The Story of a Little Coloured Coon came close to outright plagiarism. The Tale of Peter Rabbit could easily have been included in the piece simply because it was a book of the same type and size or perhaps because it was The Tale of Little Black Sambo's only real competitor.

But whatever happened, it questioned Beatrix's originality just as she was beginning her career. And, as I have tried to show, while her artwork and story were unimpeachably her own, she had consciously adopted Bannerman's format. It was, after all, a good idea one whose possibilities Beatrix increasingly realized by giving her stories a local habitation and a name. But it was perhaps the knowledge that she had used Bannerman's format that made the nastiness hurt. And it was perhaps that pain that made her so defensive about the little books. That defensiveness is there in "The Roots" which, by the way, it took four years for Bertha Mahony to persuade her to write. The story of Peter's beginnings is backed up not only by the post-romantic portrait of the artist, but by the assurance that Noel has the letter yet an assertion that appears also in the 1925 letter to Anne Carroll Moore. The defensiveness lingers in the unnecessary assurance to Stephens that Peter was "spontaneously written," and thus, by implication, a great home story like Alice In Wonderland, The Jungle Books, The Just So Stories, Peter Pan, and The Wind in the Willows.

I do not for a minute doubt that, or accuse Beatrix Potter of anything but a solid business sense. As Peter Hollindale has said, "a large part of any book is written not by its author but by the world its author lives in."[18] TheTale of Peter Rabbit was a book of its time. If a competitive spirit led Beatrix Potter to use a fashionable format, if the guidance and tact of an editor encouraged her to draw and redraw, think and rethink, experiment and have confidence in her genius, that in no way lessens the achievement of her work. Her patience, her talent, her willingness to learn bore fruit in a book not just of its time, but of our time, and of time to come.




Endnotes




[1] Jane Crowell Morse, Beatrix Potter's Americans: Selected Letters (Boston: The Horn Book, Inc.,1982), 192.

[2] Peter Hollindale, "Beatrix Potter and Natural History," in Working on the Beatrix Potter Jigsaw, Beatrix Potter Studies IX (The Beatrix Potter Society, 2001), 62.

[3] Grant Richards, Author Hunting, by an Old Literary Sportsman: Memories of Years Spent Mainly in Publishing, 1897-1925 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1934), 30-31.

[4] Margaret D. Stetz and Mark Samuels Lasner, in the 1890's: Literary Publishing at the Bodley Head (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1990), viii.

[5] The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881 to 1897, transcribed by Leslie Linder (London and New York, Frederick Warne & Company, 1966), 205-06.

[6] Julia Briggs, A Woman of Passion: The Life of E. Nesbit 1858-1924 (New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1987), 122.

[7] Roy Watling, "Mischievous mushrooms: Beatrix Potter's affair with fungi facts and misunderstandings," in Working on the Beatrix Potter Jigsaw, Beatrix Potter Studies IX (Bath Press: Beatrix Potter Society, 2001), 76.

[8] Letters to Children from Beatrix Potter, collected and introduced by Judy Taylor (London: Frederick Warne, 1992), 100.

[9] Richards, Author Hunting, 33.

[10] Edith Hay, Sambo Sahib: The Story of Little Black Sambo and Helen Bannerman (Edinburgh: Paul Harris Publishing, 1981), 25-28.

[11] "More about Little Black Sambo," in Signal Approaches to Children's Books (January, 2000), 64

[12] Letters to Children, 66.

[13] Ibid., [70].

[14] Henry Brooke, Leslie Brooke and Johnny Crow (London: Frederick Warne, 1982), 36-37

[15] Hay, Sambo Sahib, 34-38.

[16]Judy Taylor, That Naughty Rabbit: Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit (London: Frederick Warne, 1987), 49, 51.

[17] Beatrix Potter's Letters, Selected and Introduced by Judy Taylor (London: Frederick Warne, 1989), 455.

[18] "Ideology and the Children's Book," Signal 55, November 1988, 15.

This article appeared in Beatrix Potter Studies X: Where Next, Peter Rabbit? (2002 Conference, Ambleside) 2003. Republished here courtesy of the Beatrix Potter Society